On February 2, 2014 the saints at Crafton Heights walked through the third and final installment of the Samson story (see the two previous entries for the beginning and middle of this saga). Our scriptures included excerpts from Judges 16 (below) and Hebrews 12:1-3
My hunch is that anyone who grew up in the USA in the 20th century knows something about what kryptonite is. Superman, as we all know, was born on the planet Krypton, and miraculously made his way to Earth. As he grew, he discovered that his body interacted with the elements of our planet in such a way so as to give him super powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a mighty locomotive, and so on. Yet when Lex Luthor or anyone else brings some fragment of Superman’s home planet into his presence, those powers evaporate and Superman is rendered ineffectual.
Samson and the Lion, Giordano (17th c.)
Samson is about as close to Superman as anyone in the book of Judges. And if you’ve been here the past two weeks, you’ve heard me say that I think that much of Samson’s life was wasted in the pursuit of selfish gratification, and that Samson was, in my opinion, a petty man who failed to lead Israel into faith, and instead acted exactly like the Philistine overlords from whom he was called to deliver Israel. Last week, we ended with the last verse of chapter 15, which tells us that Samson was a judge in Israel for 20 years “in the days of the Philistines.”
Chapter 16, the last chapter of Samson’s life, opens with a rather pedestrian story about the chosen leader of God’s people taking the red-eye over to Philistine territory so that he can meet up with one of their prostitutes. The folks at Philistine Immigration call him out, and in a superhuman feat of strength, Samson tears out the doors of the city gate and carries them halfway home, thus wounding their pride and leaving them with a large gap in their public-works budget. It is an account of an incident that is thrown into our narrative so that we, and the Philistines, will know that Samson is still Samson. Twenty years have come and gone, but he’s still ridiculously strong and apparently insatiable.
Samson and Delilah, José Echenagusía (1887)
And then we get to “the main event” in Samson’s life – the part of the story with which we, and Hollywood, are most familiar. Samson and Delilah – an epic love story. If by “love story” you mean that he was vain and lustful and eager to use her to his own ends and that she was greedy and willing to sell out Samson for cash on the nail. Yeah, it’s a real romance, all right.
The narrative unfolds with a rather curious game in which Samson and Delilah engage in a series of lies and deceits to each other. We might call it “guess my secret”, wherein Samson’s secret is the source of his strength and Delilah’s secret is that she doesn’t really give a hoot about Samson, but only the silver pieces that the Philistines have promised her.
Three times, she comes to him at her sultry best, and pouts, and says, “Come on, big guy, don’t you love me? Tell me what makes you so big and brave and handsome…” He tells her that he can’t be tied up with fresh bowstrings or with new ropes, or that if his hair were tightly braided, he’d be out of luck. With each round of this game, Samson is the apparent “winner”, as he gets to kiss the pretty girl (and, presumably, spend a significant amount of time in other pursuits with her) and she receives only lies. But finally, after days of pestering, round four brings us a different result. Listen for the Word of God in Judges 16:
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.
So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”
When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him. (Judges 16:15-19)
Samson and Delilah, Caravaggio (1610)
Do you see – for Samson, it really is a game. As an observer, you might think, “Why in the world would he tell her what keeps him strong?” But the truth is that he had long ago stopped believing that his strength and power were gifts from God. He saw that tremendous strength as something that was simply his by right. After all, we have noticed that there are three aspects to the vow of the Nazirite: no shaving or hair cutting, nothing to do with grapes, and not becoming unclean by contact with the dead. For decades, Samson has been blithely ignoring two of those rules – he’s the host at several and the guest at many drinking parties, and he is never far from something or someone who is dead.
Here, he tells Delilah about the Nazirite vows, but it’s just another round in the game. He tells her about these things the way that my dad told me about Paul Bunyan or the Easter Bunny.
We see this borne out in Samson’s response to the situation in verse 20:
Then she called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!”
He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. (Judges 16:20)
For him, it’s business as usual: “I’ll just get back to my old self here and…what the heck?!?!” He found that he was as weak as any other middle-aged man who had been lulled to sleep in the arms of a mercenary, yet beautiful female spy…that is to say, he found that he was helpless.
We know that in the case of Superman, it’s kryptonite that causes the loss of his strength. So for Samson, it’s the hair, right?
Wrong. Samson loses his power because he has finally succumbed to the pride, the self-reliance, and the sense of invulnerability with which he has flirted his entire life. His hair is an outward sign of an inward reality – and the truth is that Samson had long ago stopped believing in the mystical power of his flowing locks…and instead, relied on himself and taken that strength as his due.
For Superman, it’s kryptonite. For Samson, it’s pride. What is there in your world that saps your strength and leads you from God’s best in the world?
For some of us, it’s a fear of being known. Every day, we look at ourselves in the mirror before leaving the house and as we pat down our hair one last time, we think, “OK, looking good. Keep up a good front, because if they found out what I was really like, then I’d be in trouble.” We say and do this because so many of us are deeply dissatisfied with who we are, but we are not sure how to change…and so we hide behind an image or a mask or a job… We hide from others, we hide from ourselves, and we even try to hide from God.
And when we spend so much energy hiding from God or from each other or even from ourselves, then there’s not much left for seeking God’s best or for acting it out. This fear will kill us.
Some of us struggle with the burden of regret. Every hour of every day, we are reminded of some secret guilt that gnaws away at us. We think of promises that we’ve broken, or angry outbursts directed towards those we love, or choices that we made an hour, a month, or a lifetime ago, and discover that they make for a debilitating load. Regret is like a sack full of stones that we feel obliged to carry everywhere… it just gets heavier and heavier, and sooner or later, it’s just easier to not try to go anywhere at all, but to stay home, inside, and dwell in the land of “I wish I had never…” or “If only…” This kind of regret is a waste of energy, emotion, and life.
The despicable twin of regret is the demon of worry about the future. We look ahead, and of course, we can’t see everything very clearly. So we become paralyzed, and are unable to move. We think, “How can I do this, when that might happen tomorrow? This may be a silly example, but perhaps you can relate: when I started the tenth grade at Concord High School, I was seized with despair. Here I was in a whole new system, a new place, with a new hierarchy, set of expectations, and opportunities. And what paralyzed me was the fact that I knew that I’d only be there 3 years. Well, given my academic prowess, I should say that I hoped I’d only be there three years. Why should I make friends, why should I try anything, why should I even care when I know that it’s all going to disappear in 3 years? It all seemed so futile.
A beardless image of me illustrating a sermon about Samson. Coincidence? Hmmmm. Bonus points for anyone under 35 who knows what I’m holding in my hands.
Fortunately for me, a band teacher and a youth group advisor told me that I was being an idiot (in nice, kind, Jesus-y language) and suggested that I enjoy the life that God gave me. And I did. And I have. And whereas I went into high school sure that there was no value in making friendships, I actually went on a few dates with a gal named Sharon McCoy that wound up changing my mind about that…
My point is that we know what it means to be surrounded by the worry, regret, or fear that seeks to render us powerless. None of us comes from Krypton, but all of us know something that would drain the life from us if we let it. So how do we deal with it?
Back to Samson. What happened after his shearing and capture?
Then the Philistines seized him, gouged out his eyes and took him down to Gaza. Binding him with bronze shackles, they set him to grinding grain in the prison. But the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved. (Judges 16:21-22)
Samson Grinding Grain, William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)
Did you ever think about the stuff that is and isn’t in the Bible? We never hear about any of Jesus’ hobbies, for instance. Nobody bothered to write down whether the Apostle Paul kept any pets. But here, someone thinks it’s important that we know that Samson’s hair started to grow after it was shaved.
Really? Doesn’t all hair do that? Isn’t it one of the properties of hair? Why do we need to know that? I’ll tell you why it’s not there – it’s not a teaser for the reader, so that we can say, “Ha, ha, those Philistines are so stupid, they don’t know that the source of his strength is his hair. Go ahead, Samson. Sneak up on ‘em. Grow that hair.” No, the faithful reader knows that Samson’s strength is from God, not his hairstyle.
The author of Judges includes that sentence because it’s a way of acknowledging that the Philistines believed that they had won. Of course they noticed his hair growing, but they didn’t care, because they believed that he was no longer a Nazirite. Not only did they believe that Samson had been vanquished for good, but that the God of the Israelites, YHWH, was as good as dead, too. We see that in the worship service that they organize in the temple of their god, Dagon:
Now the rulers of the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”
When the people saw him, they praised their god, saying,
“Our god has delivered our enemy
into our hands,
the one who laid waste our land
and multiplied our slain.”
While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. (Judges 16:23-25)
In a kind of reverse “Minute for Mission”, Samson comes out and offers the crowd “proof” that Dagon has defeated YHWH.
And then, something happens. Samson finally gets it. After a lifetime of being proud and arrogant and fierce and stubborn and godless, he is humbled and abused and blinded and mocked. And he finds himself in the arena of the god who opposes YHWH, the very center of the shrine to all that he has been called to oppose. And the once-proud and mighty warrior speaks quietly to the slave who is charged with leading him around:
When they stood him among the pillars, Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. (Judges 16:26-27)
He feels the weight of his own decisions and behavior. For the second time in his life that we know of, Samson cries out to God.
Samson Destroying the Temple of the Philistines, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (17th C.)
Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. (Judges 16:28-30)
Samson dies in an act of self-sacrifice. He is strengthened – not because his hair grew back, but because God’s call is for always. Do you remember when the angel showed up to old Manoah and his wife? He told the couple that the as yet unborn child would be a Nazirite. “…for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (13:7)
As badly as he had blown it, time and time again, Samson could not escape God’s grace. God had said that he would be blessed until the day he died, and he found that strength on that day.
This is a tragic end to a horrible story. I know in the last few weeks I have been pretty rough on Samson. I am troubled by his story because he could have chosen otherwise – but in the end, he deals with his demons in death the same way he did in life – with violence and destruction.
Beloved, you know fear. You know regret. You know worry.
Can you – can we – lay these things aside and cling to the good to which Christ calls us? Can we choose to live as those who are endowed with superpowers – the gifts of trust, and forgiveness, and hope?
You are no better, and you are no worse, than Samson. The things that derailed him can derail you and me – and will, if we give them half a chance. Samson wound up killing himself as he fought his pride and pettiness and selfishness. But you and I can claim our baptism and say, “Yes, I have already died to fear, regret, worry, and anything else that weakens me and gets in the way of the peace, faithfulness, and obedience to which I am called.” You don’t have to live with the kryptonite. And you don’t have to kill yourself. We can lean into God’s grace for this day – forgetting about yesterday and trusting for tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.